It was a wood frame church, painted white years ago in skins of lead paint, and now it stood in a state of pleasant disrepair: two back windows blotted with plywood, tangles of graffiti bitten into the siding. The eaves hung low and swollen with rot where birds carved space for their nests, and music spilled from the fanlight above the red double doors. A robed woman sang before a choir of seven black girls no older than we were, with acned cheeks and grubby hair. Overhead fans hummed. It was then, struck silent by their song, that I came to the realization slowly, and with some pleasure, that we’d intruded upon a funeral.
It was the tail end of the ceremony and already men were standing in procession, sweat-shiny brows hushed in bowler hats, some gripping jewel-headed canes. I held Elan at the elbow, as if to anchor the both of us. I watched the way his feet moved and I followed.
The entire time I was nervous Elan would laugh. He’d done worse things. But instead he stared with his head bent, chin tucked lightly, and from his profile I understood a fondness so unreal that it made me ache. He stood silently, morosely, and I felt the inadequacy of my own performance. I tried to make tears. And then we were swept in line, two men in front of us whispering into each other’s ears, the corpse just beyond, ashen hands clasped across white linen chest.
It was our turn. I looked to Elan but he gave me nothing. My hands shook and I buried them deep in my coat pockets. Elan bent to kiss the dead man on the forehead.
Now that Elan is dead, I remember things in and out of focus.
We were young and cigarettes were our obsession. They were easy. Elan’s father abandoned packs as if they were matchboxes, smoking two right away before misplacing the whole thing. He was a broad-faced man, an absent man, and he never spoke a word to me as far as I remember. Pockets of fat drooped from his jaw like hot wax and in his study he kept guns behind glass panels. I remember Elan extracting one carefully, silently, from its translucent tomb. He jiggered the glass at the corners, shimmied it loose from its frame.
It was a long-nosed shotgun with a blushing cherry stock, such fine wood it made my skin go slack. He asked if I wanted to
hold the gun and I declined, though now I wonder how I ever had that kind of strength.
He pointed the barrel at me and teased the trigger. I expected a great noise and a bullet warm in my stomach. Urine trickled cold down my legs. He laughed and said, “Safety’s on, you pussy,” but his face was white as an Easter lily.
Like the layers of rock that make a bluff, I recall our friendship now in stages. First the stand of beech trees behind Elan’s house, then beyond to the sloped birch and maple glade, and farther still to the black gum swamp with its gaping, mossy ditches, wintergreens set with sweet red checkerberries and everything blanketed in stalwart rot. The river was buried at the easternmost edge of the swamp. In the summer it ran flush along the bank, gulping at jewelweed stalk and mallow; in the winter it froze over, carving through the valley like an old snakeskin.
We smoked our first pack of cigarettes in the beech stand behind Elan’s house. Lucky Strikes, a full pack minus two. Our frames were so thin that we could disappear behind trees. Mourning doves ruffled in branches overhead, cooing in their soft way, and beech leaves rustled like flags of dead skin. They kept their leaves in the winter, the beech trees.
I held the smoke balled in my mouth but Elan drank it without coughing. He downed drag after drag and I sputtered along trying to keep pace until I learned that I could just keep it there, the smoke in my mouth, and nobody would know the difference. The next morning I could always taste the seedy undead spice of ash along my gums like a ghost.
It was Easter Sunday and I’d gone to church in the morning, a fluke. I sat behind a woman in a white sunhat trimmed with plum ribbon, clutches of plastic grapes dangling from the rim. She had the puckered face of a pitcher plant, curved around the edges and sticky sweet with age, but the first signs of wilt pocked the folds in her cheeks, the ugly bend in her nose. I imagined her younger, with fuller breasts and smaller feet, a face citrus-fresh and virginal. Her hands rested on her chintz-skirted lap, encased in white gloves, and under her perfume I caught the first whiffs of decay.
When she turned to ask if there were any extra hymnals in my pew, my gaze fell to the slant of her epaulettes and down to her cuffs. They looked as if she fingered them in prayer without noticing, pinky-sized holes here and there in the lace. When she smiled the lines on her face rearranged like ocean water and I felt very ill. I shook my head and looked at my feet. That morning I’d polished my shoes. Now they shone back at me like hawk eyes.
That night I went to Elan’s house and we stood in the closed garage and lit five packs of Lucky Strikes. The cardboard packs felt so light in my hands, empty or full it didn’t matter. We laughed and laughed until our faces went dumb. My cheeks felt warm and slippery. Elan boxed me until my lower lip bled. We sparked one cigarette after the other and waited for each to burn down before finally we started lighting them all at once and the smoke swallowed us whole and I felt grand, like a mountain in mist, or a cathedral, something blown inward and shaped with great, slow, patient gusts.
The summer before Terry Quillen moved to town, Elan started wearing bomber jackets with ripped sleeves. He played Lou Reed on loop until we knew the words by heart. Most afternoons I lay on his bedroom floor, staring at the ceiling in smoke-numbed bliss, tracing cracks in the plaster as if I were a cartographer—this a river, this a fence—Lou’s words on my lips until I felt wholly chapped.
Elan shaved half the hair from his head. “You have phenomenal hair,” the barber said, tossing it around with her manicured fingers, little pink and gold butterflies embossed on the nails. The butterflies caught the falling sun and shimmered with the illusion of flight. He glanced at her nametag and lingered a moment to consider the lavender folds of her breasts. He said, “You’re real sweet, Barbara” like it was a line from a movie. She nodded the way undertakers nod, the way nuns nod, and she cut his hair.
Once or twice it crossed my mind that he might kill himself. Even then, I think I knew I’d be left behind. Sometimes I would be sitting in class or waiting in line and this image would come to me of Elan running ahead in a red jacket, the distance between us yawning open until he disappeared on the horizon like a flame gone out. As soon as I turned eighteen I got a small tattoo above my left talus, a barn owl with eyes like beads and a wide searching face. I never showed it to anyone.
Elan started seeing a girl called Haley. She had this terrible way of pitching her head back when she laughed, exposing the shadowed flats of her neck. A small thing with compact hips, and she always asked if she looked fat. Once I said yes and Elan didn’t speak to me for a week. After she and Elan had been together for two months she got her nose and lower lip pierced. She dyed her hair black and a week later shaved it all off. He walked with his fingertips married to the small of her back.
It was during this time that Elan’s mother started to invite me over after school. Her name was Doris, after Doris Day, and the skin around her eyes drooped loose and purple. Sometimes we did chores together. Once we planted spring bulbs along the living room picture window, hyacinths and tulips and alliums; other times I tended to the plots of columbine ranged round the ancient base of an elm in the front yard. Between chores we watched television. We ate cookies from a tin and every once in a while she would say, “Isn’t that something?” in response to a commercial for a new vacuum cleaner, or a set of baking tins in the shape of zoo animals.
A birthmark lived to the west of her nose, mislaid on her fat cheek. Asymmetry can make a girl ugly, her mother said, and it had become something of a mantra in the household: all the hardware on the kitchen cabinets matched—tiny enamel knobs inked with blue and white rabbit faces—and the bathroom mirror was lined on both sides with three bulbous lights that flickered and winked when it rained. When one screen fell from an upper floor window, Doris spent an entire Sunday removing screens from the others.
She must have been at least two hundred fifty pounds about the time I knew her. The long muscles in her legs swished like
cables when she walked. When she was eighteen she’d won a beauty pageant. Twenty-three other girls, she said, some prettier than others. There were photos in a blue album stashed behind the liquor cabinet. She showed them to me once as we drank cider from plastic champagne flutes.
There she was: Doris. Standing in a red-and-white polka dot one-piece with her hair crimped in bobby pins. Behind her, a line of girls with blurred faces. A tuxedoed man holds a microphone in front of her mouth. He grins so wide it looks like his face might split down the middle. In his other hand he holds a plastic tiara.
After he finished with Haley, Elan confided in me that he found girls insufferable. He said he’d taken up with a woman. She brought him to Tory Limes, the motel off 128 with cable television and an in-ground pool and a neon sign that blinked all night long like a carnival attraction. When they made love it was real.
We were in the maple grove and I was collecting fallen maple leaves and pressing them in my old King James. He didn’t mind that I did stuff like that. Kids at school liked Elan. Other boys started wearing bomber jackets, though theirs were moneyed and unblemished.
“She bought me this,” he said, taking a lighter from his coat pocket. “It has my initials, see. She says a real man has a monogrammed lighter.”
I asked him where they met. He shrugged.
“Dates and places, what do they matter?” he said.
We had many conversations like this, dead ends. I don’t remember any of them now, only the feeling of the grove, brown and orange sod, sprigs of Solomon’s Seal misted from the earth like feathers, stems bent with pear-shaped buds; and the eastward slope to the black gum swamp, where ferns unfurled with the symmetry of human spines, the rotted logs redolent of stale gingerbread, that God-awful cinnamon-molasses stink; how easily the earth gave, and the rush of brook through mossy streambed, always in a fever. Many days the fog crept low.
I always kept my eyes on the swamp, several hundred yards east. I visited once, by myself. Indian pipe curled from the earth, sweet and damp, and I was aware of the possibility of bodies. It was the realest thing I’d ever felt, this hunch, realer than church or God or the touch of a hand on my back. My boots bit into the soil. It was fertile ground and I almost wept.
By the time I was ten I was already terrified by the prospect of marriage. I was a sickly child, mellowed by stomach cramps. Most days I read in bed, muffled under tobacco-smelling quilts: endless adventure novels about boys reared by wolves, and field guides. The pediatrician prescribed a thick pink medicine that went down like oil but it was sweet. He spooned it down my throat the first time. The receptionist smiled and offered me a lollipop and a plastic ring, one of those cheap gaudy things dolloped with an emerald. Her lacquered nails brushed the back of my hand. I imagined her lighting up and vacuuming her apartment dressed only in a bathrobe, hair toweled in a soft-serve swoop. If we ever married I would kill myself. I would take
a bottle of turquoise pills with a tall glass of juice and that would be the end of me.
I brought a girl to the black gum swamp once, owls whipping calls back and forth through the night. I took off my shirt and walked the forest with my arms vined around her body. How small and collapsible she seemed. She kept talking about something or other and I could only think about Elan fucking his woman. I wondered what they did exactly, and who initiated what, and how long any of this would last. After a while she took off her shirt as well and sat on the ground in her white cami and jeans. I joined her and took out a pack of cigarettes.
“Want one?” I said, interrupting her midsentence.
“A cigarette, I mean. Do you want one?”
“No, thanks.” She folded her legs under her. “Isn’t your father a doctor or something?”
“Or something.” I jimmied one from the pack and snapped two matches trying to light the thing. My hands kept shaking. It was muggy out and I felt moist all over.
“You shouldn’t,” she said. “The cancer.”
“The cancer,” I repeated, the word fuzzy and warm in my mouth.
I found a patch of moss and decided to lie down. Smoke pillared the sky and I imagined I was someplace sacred, Greece or something, the dirt soft and red under my feet. I’d read about the Parthenon and had postcards of it taped above my desk at home. One time when I was little my parents took me to see the
Parthenon in Nashville: air thick with mosquitoes, tourists with high socks, instamatics noosed around their necks, pink-faced girls smelling of lilac and mangoes, their hair catching the light in gold flashes. In the restroom a man with leathered skin grabbed my wrist and drew me to a stall. He ran his hands along my body before letting me go. On the way home we stopped at a Roy Rogers and I ordered two hamburgers and a box of biscuits. I vomited in the parking lot.
She started talking again. “Like the sweater, for example. Do you remember it?”
“You’re not wearing a sweater.”
“Not right now but when we first met I was. Do you remember it?”
I didn’t. I looked to the sky and thought about how someone once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who notice things, and those who don’t. I let everything wash over me like I’m a piece of sea glass. With time I grow duller and smoother until one day I’ll be nothing at all.
“It was cornflower blue,” she said and started to sob.
I almost left her there. It would have been easy. Instead I started to tease my hands along the edge of her cami. I started to peel it off like a skin, like a film, as if rebirth were a possibility. She slapped at my hands and then at my face but I kept roving and she started to guide my hands higher to the shadowy undersides of her breasts, and higher till I was fiddling with her nipples and her eyes were scanning my face for a spark but I was only looking at the bark behind her. How deep the fissures run in black gum bark, like bounds on a map.
The cigarette was still on my lips as I did all this. I felt sick inside, the smoke in my mouth. I spit out the cigarette but kept
the smoke. She closed her eyes and grabbed me by my shoulders and pushed. We fell to the ground, her body on mine. She looked animal, long curly hair pouring over her face, obscuring my view of the night sky. Her eyes were outlined in light charcoal, smudged at the corners where she had rushed the job. Without thinking I blew the smoke into her face. It struck me as a funny thing to do, possibly hilarious.
Terry Quillen moved to town when we were sixteen, into the bungalow next to Elan’s with the oversized deck and red-striped awnings. During the summer the house reeked of mesquite and charbroiled meat, but it was winter when the Quillens arrived and the grill was gone anyway. A trellis propped against the side of the house held the lacy brown skeleton of a clematis vine.
Terry was one year our junior but he looked like he was twelve. He had big mulch-brown eyes outlined in wire frame glasses and boxy teeth. He used to tell us this story about how all the kids in his old town thought he was magic because one day he had all baby teeth and the next it seemed like he had all adult teeth. At the end of each retelling he would hunch forward in laughter and make a show of welting his thighs.
“That’s wild,” Elan said. He picked at the dirt under his fingernails. “That’s the wildest thing I ever heard.”
We spent most of our time avoiding Terry. The both of us agreed that he was a nuisance. Once when he came to the woods with us he asked if we could stop smoking. Elan said, “That’s cute, Terry. We appreciate your concern, we really do.”
Terry blinked. “My great-aunt Thelma smoked her whole life and she practically went up in smoke.”
“Did she?” Elan said. He winked at me, and it was moments like these that I felt less alone. “Born with a cigarette on her lips and then up in smoke. That’s something. You know what that is? That’s wild.”
“The emphysema took her,” Terry said, encouraged. “Up to the pearly gates in a black chariot.” The way he said chariot like it was a medicine made me squirm.
We mapped Terry’s absences. On Thursday afternoons he took a painting class at the rec center, on Tuesdays he attended his mother’s knitting circle. Sunday mornings he was at church reliably from eight till noon, and Friday nights meant bingo at the senior center. We filled our hours mimicking Terry to the point where our own speech affected a slight roughness around the edges. The barbeque drawl, Elan called it. He was our axis, our crutch. We learned slowly that we had nothing else to talk about.
“His parents invited us for dinner,” Elan said. “I can’t even imagine.” He blew a ring of smoke and it expanded to frame my face before disappearing into the air around me. He’d been practicing and I was jealous. They were perfect O’s, thick and fuzzy, and he made them look effortless.
“Have your parents met him yet?” I said.
“No, thank God, but they said his parents were creeps. Mary and Ezekiel—isn’t that too much? Apparently they have a whole shelf of Bibles, all the same make, and there’re little wood crosses all over the living room wall.”
“With Jesus or regular?”
“Does it matter?”
“Just curious.” I looked through the trees toward Terry’s house. “He gives me the creeps,” I said. “Something about him.”
“He’s fake to the bone,” Elan said. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
A car pulled into their drive with the high beams on.
“Would you look at that,” he said. He pinched out his cigarette like it was a mosquito. “It’s five o’clock and Sister Mary has her high beams on.”
It was the year Elan started to scar himself. We’d stand on the overpass over 128, cars humming below, the great swell and noise like tides. He would light a cigarette and while it was fresh he would press it into his skin. It made a soft sizzling noise. He said it made him feel powerful, doing this to his body. He said it was like when you first dip your head underwater and either you decide to breathe or you don’t.
I lit cigarette after cigarette but I could never bring one to my skin. I let them blaze a while and then I stomped them out as fast as I could.
That winter the wind chill was lower than it had ever been. By early February the river behind Elan’s house was nice and frozen and we decided it would be a good idea to walk its length, to see where it brought us. A day trip, we said, knowing full well that it ran southeast for miles.
The river gasped and moaned under our weight. Each step released a sigh, a muffled crunch like walking over bones, and I traced the fine splits in the ice with rapture. Each one formed a delta before blooming again and again until the fine threads wormed together and made a thick white patch. We walked in silence.
It was midday when Terry found us several miles downstream. He waved from a distance, moving his whole body like he was doing jumping jacks, done up in so many scarves that at first we thought he was one of those men who prowled the woods at night. We’d seen them before. One offered us vodka from a pewter hip flask; another threatened us with a hunting knife, a bear’s face carved on the handle.
“The little weasel,” Elan said. He spit and dragged the back of his hand across his mouth.
When we reached him, Terry started to unwrap his face. “It’s warmer than I expected,” he said with a big doglike grin.
“Care to join?” I said.
“On the river?” Terry studied the veins we’d left in the ice. “You guys must be out of your minds.” He laughed stupidly and his glasses fogged.
“Suit yourself,” I said. I leaned against a pine.
Elan took a cigarette from his coat pocket and lit up with his monogrammed lighter. “Terry,” he said. “Why don’t you join us? It’ll be fun. That’s a promise, a goddamned vow if you want to know the truth. We’re making a pilgrimage.”
“A goddamned vow,” I echoed. “Listen to him, he’s a character.”
“The walk of champions,” Elan said. He puffed a cloud of smoke and it rode the breeze to Terry’s face. Terry sneezed. “See which one of us the emphysema snatches up first.”
Terry’s face was starting to turn. I noticed his feet shifting and suddenly I wanted to be in my room at home, away from Elan. I wanted warmth without smoke. I wanted crosses on my wall and a book of prayer.
“I don’t think so, guys,” Terry said. He gave a weak smile and shrugged.
“Don’t be a pussy,” Elan said. He dropped his cigarette and it went out in the snow. “You followed us, right?”
So we started on the ice. We made it a long way, too, and I think Terry was starting to have fun. He laughed once or twice, each time clapping a gloved hand over his mouth. This one time when he almost fell I grabbed the crook of his arm. “God bless,” he said, and all I could do was smile.
Elan started to jump up and down, flailing his arms the way Terry had signaled to us earlier. “The emphysema got me, the emphysema got me,” he said with a grin on his face and his fists in the air. With every jump his coat sleeves fell to expose the black marks along his wrists.
Elan was convinced we’d reach the reservoir but I knew we had miles.
“We’re almost there,” he’d say before stomping. Then he’d whistle a little and go ahead. Terry and I held back, anticipating these outbursts silently, the muscles in our backs tensed for flight.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Terry said. Then, to me, softer, “He shouldn’t do that.”
“His funeral,” I said. My mouth itched for a cigarette; I almost asked Terry to spot me one but I caught myself and swallowed a gust of cold air. It hurt fine, and that was what mattered.
Ten or so feet ahead, Elan started to waltz. He hummed a Carpenters song that Doris played on repeat when her husband stayed out late nights with other men who owned shotguns, men who didn’t think twice about blasting a doe between the eyes, and I thought of the time I flipped through my parents’ college yearbook and they pointed to the picture of the pale boy. They said that he threw himself from a suspension bridge their senior year, that he was one of their close friends. They said there were no signs. Even after they’d replayed the days leading up to the event hundreds of times in their heads, everything came up clear. There were no signs, none, and that’s what made it scary. The police didn’t find the body for days.
Elan’s boots scraped against the ice. They made a quiet shrieking noise like seashells dragged over pavement. When Elan finished our eyes met. He looked away first and said to Terry, “Are you a television man? I’m not, myself.”
It was the noise that I hadn’t anticipated. As if my ears were scraped hollow, the sounds of the woods stopped like an intake of breath, and the ice splitting like a gunshot. Terry rushing forward while I stood motionless, my eyelids dancing with midday light, Terry heaving the body over his shoulders and onto the riverbank. Elan was shivering so hard I thought he might break into pieces. Water rushed past the gap in the ice where Elan had fallen, like blood under the skin.
Terry started to wrap Elan in scarves, lime green and fuchsia and neon orange. It was a ceremony, a brilliant embalming. Somewhere I heard Terry shouting for my help.
High in the trees I saw a red-tailed hawk. His eyes shifted and I wondered if he’d seen me. With the slightest movement—the repositioning of a talon, the twitch of a wing—a fine ash of snow shook to the lower branches. Several times he spread his wings as if to take off. Then, without my noticing, he was gone.
We returned to Elan’s house and Doris made us hot chocolate. Terry told the story over and over, leaving out the part where I did nothing. The rest of that winter Elan and I continued to smoke in the woods, though we didn’t say much. He stopped seeing Tory Limes and started seeing a married woman who bleached her hair and smoked Kools. She had a snake tattoo that wound from her pubic bone to the hollow of her neck, and they took nude photographs together with her husband. He showed some to me once, dredged up from under a floorboard in his bedroom. He kept them in a paper bag that smelled of hemp and cedar. That summer he took a job at the gas station off 128. I started shelving books at the library. We lost touch.
Hunting season ended over a month ago but they called it a hunting accident. A morning jogger found the body in a clearing off the bike trail. The obituary was short and unremarkable. At first this bothered me.
The first hydrangeas of the season are in bloom. My wife tends to them on the weekends. She tells me they change colors from pink to blue to white based on the amount of acid in the
soil. Right now they are blue, very acidic, but she wants them white. Before we make dinner together she walks out with her test probe. She gets on her hands and knees, hollows the earth with a quick scoop of her fingers, and fills the hole with water. Then she stands, with her back to the kitchen window, waiting for the test probe’s reading.
In the bottom drawer of my nightstand I keep a Christmas card that Terry Quillen sent several years ago. He has a family now. They live in the Chicago suburbs, in a split-level painted half mint green, half white. His wife is small and freckled, with a runner’s build and breasts that pimple her chest like flat-faced thumbtacks. His two sons have red hair, the wife’s red hair, and it surprises me every time to see that Terry no longer wears glasses.
After Elan died, I started to go for drives at night. I park on the shoulder of the road by the hemlock forest at the west side of town. If you follow the dirt walk for half an hour, you’ll find a small lake. The lake spills into a neighboring town, and from our side—the side that is still undeveloped—I watch as the great yellow lights of the homes across the way go out one by one.
If the weather is good I will strip and wade into the water until I am completely submerged. Right before my ears go under I listen for all the sounds that are about to disappear. Then I decide whether or not I want to breathe.
For more than 20 years, Exposé has annually showcased outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Harvard College Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena.